Saturday, August 22, 2009

Priority Test: Health Care or Prisons?

At a time when we Americans may abandon health care reform because it supposedly is “too expensive,” how is it that we can afford to imprison people like Curtis Wilkerson?

Mr. Wilkerson is serving a life sentence in California — for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks. As The Economist noted recently, he already had two offenses on his record (both for abetting robbery at age 19), and so the “three strikes” law resulted in a life sentence.

This is unjust, of course. But considering that California spends almost $49,000 annually per prison inmate, it’s also an extraordinary waste of money.

Astonishingly, many politicians seem to think that we should lead the world in prisons, not in health care or education. The United States is anomalous among industrialized countries in the high proportion of people we incarcerate; likewise, we stand out in the high proportion of people who have no medical care — and partly as a result, our health care outcomes such as life expectancy and infant mortality are unusually poor.


We waste an incredible amount of money in the criminal justice system if the goal is crime control. As the editorial by Kristof points out, we are the world leader when it comes to incarceration. But we do not need these current levels in order to maintain safe communities. Nationally, crime rates have been dropping since the 1990s. This drop is attributable to a number of factors, least of which is incarceration.

Many of our current policies, such as drug prohibition laws, actually make matters worse. The bottom line is that we can save money, which can be redirected to other needs, while continuing to improve public safety. The question is do we have the political will to invest in people and break the current cycle of ineffective crime control policies?

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